By Kevin Koczwara
It’s January and that means the transfer window is open in Europe. It also means it’s time for Robbie Keane to make what seems to be an annual trek to a new club. This year is a bit different for Keane, though. Instead of shipping out to find playing time or a new “favorite club”, Keane is going out on a short loan to play in the Premier League with Aston Villa with the hope that it will keep him sharp for the upcoming Major League Soccer season. Keane isn’t in search of playing time to keep his national team spot as in years past. He’s in search of another challenge and another chance.
Keane has his playing time almost guaranteed when he returns in six weeks to the Los Angeles Galaxy. He has the recognition of being one of MLS’s highest paid players and in a league where class strikers are in thin supply. This loan isn’t about going out and finding a spot on a roster with a team that needs him and won’t just place him on the bench or in the stands. This isn’t like the loan spells while at Tottenham or the return to London after a short-lived spell with Liverpool. No, this loan spell is about Keane staying fit for Euros 2012 where he will play a pivotal role for Ireland, a national team returning to the spotlight again, a team in need of its all-time leading goalscorer and captain at his peak.
And that’s good for both Keane and Major League Soccer.
Keane signed with the Galaxy on August 15, 2011 as the team’s third Designated Player. He was partnered with David Beckham, the league’s original DP, and Landon Donovan, America’s most recognizable player, to form a triumphant of attacking players with global experience and fame that the league has never seen. It was the perfect move for Keane. He no longer needed to shine in the limelight or prove his worth. He got to go out and play knowing that on the same roster there were only two other players with the international pedigree he enjoyed.
Over the years, Keane has jumped from club to club, always looking for a manager who trusted him. Looking for a manager who saw how his lack of blistering pace and creativity were actually things that made him special. Keane’s always been good with the ball at his feet. He’s always in control of his movement and thinking ahead and working with the ball instead of trying to power by players, which can cause players to become one-dimensional and turn the ball over often. His finishing has always been clinical (well, minus that short time at in front of the the net. Liverpool) because he is so comfortable on the ball and so in-tune with the game.
Keane is a poacher in a little man’s body. He finds space well in the box and seems to pop-up when the opportunity to score presents itself. Without blistering speed or giant-like height, Keane found himself riding the bench at Tottenham, the club he found the most success just a few seasons before, no matter how many goals he scored or set up. In the past few seasons, he was left searching for answers and places to play.
The lack of playing time forced Keane to reach out for loans with clubs in search of an impact player. None of the moves worked out the way they were imagined.
Celtic needed some help catching Rangers in the Scottish Premier League title chase in 2009, so the club brought in Keane with the hopes that the forward could toe the line and score goals, something the club’s forwards were struggling to do. Keane scored plenty of goals for the Hoops, but Rangers pulled away with another SPL title. Keane became a crowd favorite, but tight purse strings and an inflated price because of his success in Scotland, left Celtic only wishing it could afford the Ireland international. Keane returned to Tottenham to find his spot in the pecking order even further down. The search was on again for Keane for the 2010/11 season.
West Ham was dire need of a player who could lead the line and score in the in the winter of 2011. Keane was brought in on loan, but he couldn’t help the Hammers stave off relegation. Injuries and West Ham’s poor performance overall couldn’t stop the team from diving into the Championship. Keane went back to Tottenham and, again, found himself on the outside looking in.
Then the Galaxy came calling and a permanent move out of Purgatory materialized for Keane, finally. The move came at a good time in Keane’s career. He had been in England for the majority of his career, outside of his stint at Celtic and a short stop at Inter Milan, and it was good for Keane to get away. He needed to get away from the spotlight and the English game, a game that had taken its toll on him over the years.
All those years and games played in the Premier League took a pounding on Keane. He isn’t a big forward, 5’9”, or the fastest player. He had to bang bodies, push and work for every inch. He had to fight. That wears on a player over the course of 14 professional seasons — 570 total club games. The travel, the practices, the fighting to get into the squad and the years of managing doubting him must have sapped something from Keane. And all the time spent in England, a country known for its tough soccer traditions, would have sucked the life from anyone trying to fight for a place in a team at the age of 31.
Keane needed the move to MLS. And MLS needed one of the globe’s most recognizable players to join the ranks. LA jumped on the chance to get another piece to its puzzle. And despite only playing four games for the Galaxy, the move paid off. Los Angeles won the Supporters’ Shield — awarded to the team with the best regular season record — and it captured the elusive MLS Cup.
Now, Keane goes back to where his professional career started in 1997, England. He is going back on another loan to a struggling side, Aston Villa. But it’s a side, like Los Angeles, that wants him, that needs him. When the season starts again in MLS, Keane will have his spot leading the line for the Galaxy. Instead, this move is about Keane proving he can still play with the boys in the Premier League. It’s a move to keep him in shape. And it’s a move that, like Thierry Henry’s loan at Arsenal, puts MLS in the news for more than David Beckham. This is a loan that keeps MLS relevant with other top-quality players looking for another chance, another place to shine when the allure of their life seems to have faded. Hopefully for Keane, he stays healthy and gets a chance to keep his play in Ireland’s Euro 2012 team, because after his professional journey, he deserves a bit of luck by now.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at email@example.com.